You have probably been persuaded to buy something after seeing an advertisement. The ad might have appealed to your sense of masculinity or femininity, or maybe it attacked your senses by showing you a delicious cheeseburger right around lunch time. But maybe the marketing team behind the ad dug deeper and tapped your sex drive? We’ve all heard it before: Sex sells.
For decades, that’s been gospel. But, as it turns out, it might not actually be the case. In fact, all of those hot babes eating Carl’s Jr. hamburgers haven’t translated into inflated profits for CKE Restaurants — at least not as expected. New research from the University of Illinois seems to confirm it. According to a new study, sexy ads aren’t nearly as effective as once thought. In fact, they can actively backfire on the brands using them to market their goods and services.
“We found literally zero effect on participants’ intention to buy products in ads with a sexual appeal,” the study’s lead author John Wirtz said. “This assumption that sex sells — well, no, according to our study, it doesn’t. There’s no indication that there’s a positive effect.”
But that’s not all. Wirtz said people were more likely to have a negative attitude toward brands using sexually charged ads more than anything. So perhaps you’ve been having the opposite of the intended reaction to many brands without even realizing it.
We took a look at some companies that use sex to sell more than most, and you can gauge for yourself whether you have a negative or positive association.
1. Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are the same restaurant, in case you didn’t know. They simply operate under two different names depending on where you are in the country. And they like to sell hamburgers using some hypersexual advertisements. There have been several over the past few years, but the company has announced plans to start utilizing other marketing strategies.
Who thought web hosting could be so hot? That’s what many people were thinking when GoDaddy started to siege the airwaves with a series of sexy ads a few years back. Danica Patrick, a world famous stock car racer, was also prominently featured in several. Many of these ads played during the Super Bowl, but like Carl’s Jr., GoDaddy has decided to change course.
3. American Apparel
One company that has suffered considerably in the wake of sexual scandals is American Apparel. The clothing company made splashes with its oversexualized marketing campaigns (see above), and eventually the company’s CEO and founder Dov Charney was ousted after a series of sexual harassment lawsuits. These days, American Apparel is a shell of its former self, though it’s hard to say how much of that can be blamed on sexy ads.
If you walk past a herd of teenage boys, an unmistakable scent will undoubtedly waft into your olfactory system. It’s Axe — the body spray that many men and boys have adopted as an alternative to showering. One thing about Axe you should know is its ads aren’t very subtle (see above), but it evidently worked to some degree. Perhaps some Degree would be a good alternative for your standard Axe user.
5. Calvin Klein
One company that has used sex to sell clothes for many years now is Calvin Klein. All you need to do is look at the advert above featuring Justin Beiber, and it’s pretty clear the company knows what it’s doing. Calvin Klein is even recruiting the over-70 crowd these days with its underwear campaigns. But again, CK has been at it for years, and it’s hard to say whether sexualized ads have been a drag on its business.
Remember the jingle “fall into the Gap”? It’s clever, all right, and pretty suggestive. Like Calvin Klein, Gap has used a number of sexually charged marketing techniques over the years. But Gap has straddled the line fairly well. Most of its ads aren’t on the same level as Calvin Klein, and it does tend to have a more family-friendly image compared to many of its competitors.
Pepsi loves to create controversy with its marketing campaigns. Who can forget the most recent misstep, which included Kendall Jenner handing police officers a Pepsi during a riot? Although not particularly sexy, it’s a recent example of Pepsi’s team trying a little too hard. And a look back in time shows many examples of the company using sex to sell — such as this advertisement (above) with Britney Spears.
We could make a long list of beer companies that use sex to sell their products. It would include just about every major beer brand you can think of. So we’re just going to include one, Budweiser, for brevity’s sake. Budweiser, and its numerous offshoots, have TV spots and print ads using sexuality as a selling point. The one you see above is actually pretty tame compared to many others.
As you can see from the ad above, Levi’s isn’t scared to push the envelope when it comes to sexuality in marketing. Like many other clothing brands, Levi’s tries to capitalize on our most basic and instinctual desires to sell clothes. Also like many other clothing brands, it seems to work. How else are you supposed to sell skin-tight denim to the world without getting cheeky?
Many people might not remember, but Skechers has flirted with some pretty racy marketing in the not too distant past. One of its ads even featured Kim Kardashian in a sex-fueled interaction at the gym. The ad didn’t sit well with a lot of people and even caused a bit of a controversy for a while. Aside from that, Skechers is fairly tame but still seems to understand the power of sex in marketing.
Coke has some fairly wholesome ads. But it also has some sexually charged stuff, too. Take a look at the advert above for one example, which is sending a fairly obvious message as to what drinking a coke might lead to. Of course, Coke has been around for a very long time, and with the billions it’s spent on marketing over that period, there was bound to be some sexy missteps.
Yes, even luxury brands are getting in on the down and dirty world of raunchy advertising. When you think about it, though, many people are probably spending on luxury brands in hopes that it will somehow lead to more attraction from the opposite sex. Gucci is one of those brands that manages to take this concept and run with it, creating some of the dirtiest ads you can imagine.
13. Skyy Vodka
Well, it doesn’t get much more explicit than the image above. Skyy was clearly pulling no punches with its attempt to sell cherry vodka, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the ad’s designers managed to cleverly create a certain shape with the product itself. Skyy is another booze company that uses sex as one of its most potent weapons and has many other ads in the same vein.
14. Abercrombie & Fitch
We’re including Abercrombie & Fitch on our list because it represents a unique example. While Abercrombie famously used very sexy ads to market and sell its clothes for a number of years, it’s actually pulled an about-face and taken things in a different direction recently. Perhaps the marketing team got the memo that sex doesn’t sell as well as many had suspected.
We’ll leave you with PETA — an organization that advocates for the humane treatment of animals. Given the group’s mission, it might come as a surprise it’s willing to use meat and skin to sell its message. In fact, PETA has used some very controversial ads in the past, many of which featured very famous people, such as Pam Anderson.